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What To Expect When Your Pet Breaks A Tooth

By Theresa A. Fuess, Ph.D.
Information Specialist
University of Illinois
College of Veterinary Medicine

How would you tell if your pet broke a tooth? An animal with dental pain may eat only reluctantly or chew only on one side. A dog may salivate at its food bowl. Cats will sometimes take a bit of food, then drop it, hiss at it, and run away. They will prefer soft food to dry. These signs can be missed, however, and eventually the broken tooth will become infected, causing severe and sudden swelling of the face. There may also be pussy discharge from the face, chin, gums, or nose, producing sneezing and nasal discharge.

"When a broken tooth is discovered, it is important to determine whether the soft pulp inside the tooth is exposed," advises Dr. Sandra Manfra, small animal surgeon and dentist at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital. "If there is a small hole in the broken surface of the tooth, then the pulp is exposed. If there is not a hole, only the superficial part of the tooth is exposed and the tooth usually doesn't require any special treatment." Your veterinarian can check for pulpal exposure with a small dental explorer.

A tooth that has slowly worn down over time will have a brown spot that can be mistaken for a broken tooth. If the veterinarian using a dental explorer cannot find a hole in the brown spot, then the tooth is worn down and doesn't need any treatment.

When the tooth first breaks, it will bleed if the soft pulp inside is exposed. At this time the nerves in the pulp are exposed and the tooth is very painful. The nerves in the tooth slowly die over a few weeks to months; then there is no pain. The tooth can remain in this state for months or years.

Bacteria will enter the hole in the tooth and cause inflammation of the tooth root and surrounding bone. At this time the animal will again feel pain, now through the nerves in the bone. Inflammation is the body's way of rejecting the dead tooth by destroying the ligament that attaches the tooth to the bone, but this process can take years and can be very painful.

"Pet owners have three choices when they find their pet has a broken tooth," says Dr. Manfra. "They can do nothing, they can have the tooth extracted, or they can save the tooth with a root canal." If the tooth is treated soon after it breaks, the problems of infection can be avoided. Untreated younger animals will develop an infection within two years of the break because the tooth roots are not yet sealed off; older animals may not develop an infection. However, once a tooth is infected, there is a greater risk that it cannot be saved with a root canal. While it is not recommended to let a broken tooth go untreated, if that is the owner's choice then the tooth should be x-rayed periodically so that inflammatory changes around the tooth can be detected and treated.

Dr. Manfra advises owners to check their pet's mouth regularly. Inspect the teeth and be sure the gums are pink and healthy. Look for teeth with fractures or discoloration. If a tooth does not look normal, tap on it. If this causes pain, then there's probably an abscess. Your veterinarian can x-ray a painful tooth to look for evidence of bone loss around the tooth, which indicates an inflammatory reaction.

"Checking for broken teeth is a simple thing to do," says Dr. Manfra. "However, it should be done cautiously to avoid getting bit!"

For more information about your pet's dental health, contact your local veterinarian.